Abortion rights protest, sign readig "abolish patriarchal surveillance of women"

A woman holds a placard saying, "Abolish patriarchal surveillance of women" during a protest to demand safe and legal access to abortion on May 14, 2022.

(Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Ohio Doctors Urge Prosecutor to Drop Case Against Woman Who Suffered Miscarriage

A prosecutor in Trumbull County, Ohio is "under no legal obligation" to prosecute Brittany Watts, said an advocacy group.

Joined by national reproductive rights groups, a physician-led advocacy organization in Ohio is pushing a county prosecutor to drop a felony charge against Brittany Watts, a woman who suffered a miscarriage in September, saying it's entirely in the attorney's power to stop a grand jury case—in which the odds are stacked against the defendant—from moving forward.

On Friday, Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights (OPRR) wrote to Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, a Democrat, to refute his claim that he is obligated to charge Watts with abuse of a corpse and to bring the case to a grand jury.

The group pointed out that nearly 100 elected prosecutors from across the U.S., including two in Ohio, said in a joint statement after Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022 that "prosecutors are entrusted with immense discretion" when deciding to pursue criminal charges.

"Prosecutors make decisions every day about how to allocate limited resources and which cases to prosecute," said the June 2022 statement. "Indeed, our communities have entrusted us to use our best judgment in deciding how and if to leverage the criminal legal system to further the safety and well-being of all, and we are ethically bound to pursue those interests in every case."

With that in mind, said OPRR, Watkins is "under no legal obligation" to prosecute Watts.

"As has been widely publicized and as you well know, but choose to ignore, the principle of prosecutorial discretion is well established in both federal and Ohio law," the group's letter reads.

The case stems from a miscarriage Watts suffered at home in September, after she had experienced pain and passed blood clots at 22 weeks of pregnancy. Doctors at a local hospital told her the pregnancy was not viable despite some cardiac activity, but Watts was forced to wait several days for an ethics panel to determine whether the hospital could induce labor under Ohio law. The state currently permits abortion care until 22 weeks of pregnancy, but the state has claimed it can enforce a six-week ban that has been blocked by preliminary injunction.

Watts eventually had the miscarriage in her bathroom, and police got involved in the case after she told a nurse at the hospital that she had taken the tissue, fluid, and blood in her toilet and placed it in a bucket. The authorities investigated and found Watts' fetus, which weighed less than one pound, in a pipe connected to the toilet.

Mini Timmaraju, president and CEO of Reproductive Freedom for All, told MSNBC on Wednesday night that prosecutors are punishing Watts for doctors' inability to make a decision about providing her with medical attention in the United States' post-Roe political climate.

"She should be treated with compassion, with dignity, with care, but because of this climate and environment we're in now," said Timmaraju, "this is the America that has been wrought."

The grand jury is investigating Watts' case and is expected to vote on whether to indict her in the coming weeks, unless Watkins drops the charge.

If the case proceeds, Watts could be called to testify before the grand jury, but she would not be granted legal representation and Watkins' office would not be required to present any information that could help the defendant's case. In Trumbull County, Watkins noted in a recent memo, grand juries decide against indicting defendants in only about 20% of cases.

Watts could face up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine if she is found guilty.

"Prosecuting people for miscarriage doesn't improve public health or safety," said If/When/How, a national network of reproductive rights lawyers, earlier this month. "Instead, it means locking someone up, separating families, and dire financial harm to them."

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